There’s a bittersweet quality to You’ll Never Know, C. Tyler’s disarming memoir about attempting to learn what her father went through in World War II. Shaped like a scrapbook (oversized, much wider than it is long), You’ll Never Know is like a collection of memories, some old, some recently found, with the notes and perceptions usually written on the backs of photos moved front and center.
They’re aren’t any photos, of course; just Tyler’s impressive drawings and inks, vividly colored in an amazing array of fluidity. The horrors of World War II are summed up rapidly in a one-page intro to the book. Of course, that’s not the focus here, not really. It’s the aftermath, the returning home of the Greatest Generation and their settling into their resumed lives that Tyler is interested in. “You would never know he had participated in it,” Tyler writes as way of introduction to her father, Chuck. But she knows better than to think it is all due to modesty (an early image in the book presents a diorama of her father’s city, a cloud above spelling out “Visible” and, tucked down at the bottom of the page with an arrow pointing up, the words “Not-all-scars R…”—a subtle way of spelling out “Not all scars are visible,” thus giving us one small insight into Chuck’s psyche).
As the memoir begins, Tyler is married with a child, but that soon changes. Her husband decides to leave to pursue a new love, leaving Tyler to deal with the emotional fallout. She focuses all the more on her father’s story, trying to get him to come out of his self-imposed shell and reveal what he had been through. He acquiesces, and the dichotomy of present heartache versus past wartime trauma form the riveting crux of the story. Why Chuck chooses to tell his own story when he does is almost as interesting as what he unveils.
The first book in a planned trilogy (this one is subtitled A Good and Decent Man),You’ll Never Know is so compellingly honest and unself-conscious that it makes its point all the more poignant. Tyler doesn’t lavish her father with hero worship, nor does she try to build him up into anything he isn’t. She simply wants to get at the truth and know this man better. For those who were raised by or have been close to a vet, it’s a common feeling, a longing to know more in order to help better understand. Tyler does it so beautifully that we’re eager to see her succeed for our own sake as much as hers.
Reviewed by John Hogan on April 29, 2009
You'll Never Know, Book One: A Good and Decent Man